'Tis the Season
By Donna Rothert, PhD
“What a beautiful, such a beautiful, beautiful wreck you are.” -Shawn Mullins “Beautiful Wreck”
I was ambivalent about doing a holiday related post. There are certainly other places on the internet to find great articles that address the challenges of this time of year for those who have experienced reproductive loss. They offer useful ideas regarding how to cope with family members, find meaning in the holidays and ways to create your own traditions. These articles can feel like lifesavers for those who are grieving babies during the holiday season. If you’re interested, I would recommend looking at the National Infertility website Resolve or googling “pregnancy/infant loss and holidays.”
But as Thanksgiving approached, I kept thinking about a scene from the movie “Return to Zero,” a Lifetime movie that came out earlier this year. It’s based on a true story about a couple coping with the loss of their stillborn son.
This particular scene takes place some months after the loss and the grieving woman, played by Minnie Driver, is in the midst of alcohol affected family Thanksgiving dinner. At the table, family members start expressing gratitude for various things in their lives and making toasts. Following her father-in-law’s elaborate and effusive toast “To Life!” (during which Driver’s character visibly sinks further into her own drunken sadness), she makes her own toast:
“I’m thankful that today I can see life for what it really is. To know that just beneath the surface, just under the radar, is death.” She says a few more lines and ultimately raises her glass “to Death!”
The words are sad, defiant, jarring and clearly disturbing to some of the family members, but make perfect sense to the bereaved couple. The toast seems to me to be a kind of postcard from the upside-down version of the holiday experience, a version that needs to be acknowledged. Certainly partly influenced by alcohol (which I don’t, by the way, recommend as a coping mechanism), the character is giving voice to what is lost in her life.
The speech acknowledges the baby who is dead, the part of the grieving woman that feels dead and the character’s acute awareness of the thin line between her losses and the right side-up world of the others sitting around the table. The couple is living in the season of grief, which overrides any other dates on the calendar. And as sad as it is, their experience is just as real (and alive) as any version of a “Happy Holiday.”
Most of us probably spend the majority of our lives traveling somewhere between the sentiments of the two toasts- the over-the-top shout out to life and the dark nod to death. But we are likely to spend at least some significant time parked closer to one or the other of these perspectives. It may help to remember that someone is always parked near you as well as across the road and you will all likely be switching positions at some point.
If grief is a part of your season, you may notice that you are looking at the world in a very different way than you have in past years. It also is likely to be very different than what you will experience in future years, despite any current conviction you may have that all of your future holidays will be as sad and painful as this one.
You know on some level that there are people all over the world who are also grieving right now. People who feel just as sad and wrecked by a loss as you may be feeling. Noticing them with respect may help you to respect and have some compassion for yourself. This could happen just through shifting your awareness to consider them or something more hands on, such as volunteering to help others in need during the holidays.
Darkness punctuated by light of all kinds is a pretty ubiquitous sight at this time of year. It reminds us of the drama and meaning in both sides of the human experience- cold vs. warm, drained of life or bursting with it. We all want to live on the bright side, but since that’s not a permanent address, it may help us to keep our eyes and hearts open to toasts from both sides of the table.
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